FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (CN) – As the United States wrestles over its energy future, one of the nation’s top uranium producers is finding opposition on the streets of Flagstaff, Arizona.
Haul No, an organization against uranium production, has formally opposed uranium hauling through Flagstaff by putting a resolution through the City Council. They also plan to protest in front of City Hall on Oct. 10. The resolution attempts to ban uranium producer Energy Fuels Resources from using city roads to haul uranium.
Energy Fuels plans to transport uranium in open-bed trucks with tarps secured over the top. Haul No claims the possibility of cargo spills and uranium dust escaping through the tarps and tainting the environment and communities are consequences too severe to allow on the road.
The idea of clean energy implies no impact on environments or people. Energy Fuels and Haul No cannot agree on whether uranium production can be called a clean source of energy.
Citing state and federal regulations, Curtis Moore, Energy Fuels’ vice president of marketing, believes Haul No’s opposition is misinformed.
“I will tell you that the people who are opposed to this are badly misinformed about what we’re doing, badly misinformed. What we’re doing is not dangerous. It’s not harmful to people or the environment. It’s very responsible and can be done very, very safely,” Moore told Courthouse News.
Sarana Riggs, Haul No’s main coordinator, believes that with northern Arizona’s dirty history of uranium mining, milling and hauling, people should be cautious.
“This is not clean energy. Clean energy would have no impact, no devastation, no contamination,” Riggs said in an interview.
Uranium currently produces 20 percent of U.S. electricity, according to Energy Fuels.
The uranium is being extracted from Canyon Mine, located south of the Grand Canyon. Energy Fuels estimates over 2.4 million pounds of uranium and 11.9 million pounds of copper lies beneath Canyon Mine. It plans to extract both and haul it to the White Mesa Mill in Utah, where it will be processed into enriched uranium.
The hauling route in question will mainly travel through Coconino County – one of the largest counties in the United States.
Transports are slated to go through Flagstaff, more than five cities, three counties, two states and across the Hopi reservation and the Navajo Nation to White Mesa Mill. Energy Fuels says there are many possible routes it can take, some that might not go through Flagstaff.
“We haven’t decided on our final haul route for ore coming out of the Canyon Mine, but we’re going to be using state and federal highways,” Moore said.
Haul No is a group coordinated by three community-based activists in Arizona and the Southwest. The three coordinators have their own separate goals related to Arizona uranium, but came together to speak out about the issue of uranium hauling.
“When we’re doing anything … it’s a consensus of what we should be doing as a group and if it’s beneficial to the overall mission,” Riggs said. “As a collective voice we thought, well, all groups are working on something, but nobody is really addressing these [hauling] issues right now.”
Riggs is from the area, and grew up on the Navajo Nation. Her grandfather helped process uranium ore at a mill near Tuba City, Arizona, north of Flagstaff. The mill provided housing for her grandfather and the rest of the workers. Her father has memories of playing on the mining equipment and conveyer belts at the mill.
Growing up, Riggs’ grandfather would come home after a long day at the mill, and pick her up to hug and kiss her.
“That’s just what you do when you come home. Nobody thought about the dangers of that,” Riggs said. “In each family, in each homestead around there, the same thing is happening. Dads come home. Moms are in there cooking dinner, giving their husbands something to eat, washing their clothes. Kids playing around.”
People didn’t notice the effects of the mines until it was too late. Now she hopes to avoid repeating the same mistakes for her three children.
The Navajo Nation has had a long history of radiation pollution as a result of uranium mining and production. Over 500 deserted uranium mines have contaminated drinking water, caused air pollution and left uranium ore scattered across the reservation.
Examples of the pollution are still being discovered around northern Arizona.
Tommy Rock, a researcher at Northern Arizona University, tested the waters of Sanders, Arizona, in northeast Arizona and found that it was contaminated with uranium.
The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality knew Sanders was contaminated as early as 2003 but never told the community.
Rock informed the community that the legal limit for uranium in drinking water is 30 parts per billion, while Sanders water was tested at 50 parts per billion.
Moore, of Energy Fuels, blames past contamination on bad mining practices, not necessarily hauling practices. He says standards have improved since those mines were abandoned decades ago. He also claims natural, unenriched uranium ore is not necessarily harmful in small doses.
“You can hold a piece of uranium ore in your hand and it’s not going to hurt you,” Moore said. “You don’t want to put it under your pillow and sleep with it every night, but casual contact with uranium ore is not harmful.”
While Rock agrees with that, he thinks it’s important to note that the danger from uranium depends on how radioactive it is and how long a person is exposed to the radiation.
“If they’re going to be doing this for a long period of time, then yeah, there’s going to be an issue,” Rock told Courthouse News. “It will be more of a chronic exposure for people that live inside the transport area.”
It is not clear how radioactive the Canyon Mine uranium is at this time.
Rock says there are still certain communities that are more at risk for contamination.
“Since it’s high-grade uranium then I do see an issue, especially with kids and people that have health issues,” Rock said. “Because they’re the most vulnerable population in terms of environmental exposure.”
The Flagstaff City Council has already held one round of discussions on the hauling ban. Haul No is planning to protest the resolution on Oct. 10 in front of Flagstaff City Hall. The second round of discussions at City Hall will happen by the end of November.
Councilwoman Eva Putzova said she has not been briefed on whether the resolution’s request is even legal. And while she hasn’t made up her mind, she believes her role on the City Council is to ensure the safety of the public.
“The private sector will be concerned with their own interests and not the interests of the community as a whole, not public health issues,” Putzova said. “That’s when it is appropriate for the government to interfere.”
Energy Fuels doesn’t plan start production of the uranium until next year, but is currently on track to be the largest producer of uranium in the United States.
Meanwhile, Haul No is reaching out to Flagstaff residents and reservation communities to gain support of the hauling ban.